April 2023

Are you an Arctic tern or a partridge?

by Suw on April 26, 2023

Developing a career as a writer isn’t a sprint. It isn’t even a marathon. It’s an epic journey and you have to learn to pace yourself.

The Arctic tern has the longest migration of any bird, flying from its northern summer breeding grounds to the Antarctic and back again every year. Those that nest in Iceland or Greenland make, on average, a 70,900 kilometre (44,100 mile) round trip. The longest tracked trip made by an Arctic tern is 81,600 kilometres (50,700 miles). During a 30-year-long life, the average Arctic tern will fly 2.4 million kilometres (1.5 million miles) following a meandering route that sticks largely to the coastlines where it feeds, but taking advantage of any prevailing winds.

Your average partridge, on the other hand, never moves more than about a kilometre, or 0.6 miles, from where it hatched.

To become a successful writer, you must learn to love being an Arctic tern.

Like flying around the world, writing takes a long time. It doesn’t really matter whether you’re writing a pentology of heroic sagas or flash fiction, you’re still going to have to do a lot of it in order to develop a career.

To survive, you have to treat it like the epic journey it is: Learn how to nourish yourself along the way, how and when to take some rest, and how to set a course that you can actually navigate. However wise it is to stay close to sources of food, sometimes you’re going to be swept along by the prevailing wind to unfamiliar places and you are inevitably going to have to route around thunderstorms that might pose a threat to life and wing.

The journey will be arduous. It may feel interminable (internimable? Sorry-not-sorry). And when you get to where you’re going you’ll have just enough time to produce your offspring and for them to fledge before you’re off again, chasing a summer that you might catch but will never see through to the end.

And this will be your life. There’s no holiday in the Canaries and catching up with your mate later after a nice rest and a few days in a spa. There’s no taking a year off and staying in Iceland through the dark polar winter just because you didn’t fancy the trip south this year. There’s just flying. And more flying. And more flying.

There’s only flying.

You can live a very fulfilling life as a partridge. Staying in one spot. Becoming intimately familiar with every blade of grass, every shrub, every tree. Defending your nest and your 20 eggs, incubating them alone for over three weeks. Bringing your chicks up in familiar territory, teaching them all about those same blades of grass, same shrubs, same trees.

There’s nothing wrong with being a partridge, but you have to be honest with yourself about what you are. You can’t fly south if you don’t leave your nest. You need sufficient self-awareness to decide whether you are really in it for the long haul, or whether you’d prefer not to fly off into a never-ending sunset, living comfortably in your grassland nest and not writing.

Being a writer is about loving, or at least making peace with, the process, because 99.9 per cent of writing is, well, writing. It’s getting down that first draft, it’s editing it, reworking it, getting feedback on it, polishing it, sending it out into the world, whether to agents or publishing it yourself. That’s the flight to the Antarctic.

Once you’re there, you have to do all the promo, the marketing, the newsletters, the social media, all that jazz, to get your work in front of people who might like it. That’s the flight back to the Arctic.

Every year, rinse and repeat.

You will spend more time travelling than resting, but if you love to travel, if travel is your very nature, if you feel more intensely yourself when you are on the wing, then the travel is the joy. Congratulations, you are an Arctic tern.

If you’re feeling more like a partridge, but you still want to write, then you need to learn to become an Arctic tern. Maybe you take some test flights. Nip down to the coast and back with a short story. Circumnavigate the isles with a novella. Build up your strength and stamina. Develop your flying skills. But you have to understand what’s really involved in being an Arctic tern and you have to commit to the transformation.

The alternative is miserable. Because partridges that stray too far from their nest are at risk of getting shot.

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I’m in there somewhere.

Plus joining the dots, set-ups and payoffs, types of attention, and debut authors struggle with mental health.

Hi there,

I rearranged my office yesterday. I’d been thinking about doing it for ages, because putting my desk right under the window meant that the difference in brightness between my screen and the window was giving me eye ache. I knew when I set this office up that it was a bad idea but, given how much crap I have to fit into this room, I didn’t think I had another choice. I hoped it would just work. It didn’t.

And if there’s a better metaphor for Tag’s pilot episode cold open that I know I need to kill, I don’t know what it is.

Past event: The Big Comedy Conference

I spent last Saturday in London at the Big Comedy Conference (audience picture above), organised by the British Comedy Guide, and it was fabulous. It was organised the way that all the best conferences are, with long breaks between sessions that prioritise quality over quantity.

Panel discussions covered the commissioning process and what producers do, about which I knew nothing, plus comedy characters and plotting, about which I already knew a bit. I learnt a lot, even in the sessions where I thought I already had a decent grounding, and found a lot of new jumping-off points for further reading.

If BCG organise another BCC next year, and you’re into any kind of comedy, I highly recommend going.

Opportunity: BBC Radio 4 open to sketch submissions

BBC Radio 4’s open-door sketch comedy show, DMs Are Open, is indeed open to submissions on a weekly basis.

For this series, DMs Are Open is going NON-TOPICAL. This means that we’re not looking for sketches based around news stories of the week. Instead, each episode will have a theme, and we want your sketches, one-liners and voice notes to fit into that theme. So you no longer have to start from a news story, instead your material should relate to the week’s theme. As long as your material has a connection to the theme, it’s got a chance of getting on the show.

This week’s theme is crime, and one-liners/voice notes submissions end today (sketch submissions closed yesterday), with the same schedule repeated for the next seven weeks. The next round opens today, and the final deadline will be 6 June.

News: US screenwriters vote to strike

I don’t often cover newsy news here, but I thought this story was worth mentioning. The Writers Guild of America’s members have voted by an overwhelming 98 per cent to authorise strike action if the WGA’s negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) don’t go well. The WGA and AMPTP are currently thrashing out the next standard contract for writers and are thus discussing compensation. From Vulture:

“On TV staffs, more writers are working at minimum regardless of experience, often for fewer weeks, or in mini-rooms, while showrunners are left without a writing staff to complete the season,” the report states. “And while series budgets have soared over the past decade, median writer-producer pay has fallen.”

Fingers crossed that the WGA succeeds. Writers everywhere are underpaid and undervalued, so we need organisations like the WGA to stand up for them (us!).

Read this: Joining the dots

Author Michael Marshall Smith writes about how much more satisfying it is for readers/viewers to be left to join the dots in a story rather than have everything spelt out for them.

[W]hat’s interesting is that the audience is not only capable of joining these dots, but the process psychologically involves them far more compellingly in the story than you spelling it out for them would.

If you trust your reader/viewer to fill in the gaps, you give them the chance to “fill it in, in the process investing it with resonance from our own lives. When we do this, we truly feel it and believe it.”

Tweet of the week: Set-ups and pay offs and pay offs

Author and screenwriter David Hines has a great thread on Twitter (yes, the hellsite still produces some gold) on the relevance of magic to writing and in particular to the need to pay off your set-ups, twice if you can.

With regard to the Aliens power loader set-up and payoff, Hines says:

James Cameron’s One Weird Trick is this: when he establishes a set-up, he pays it off *twice.*

This works because once the set-up is paid off, the audience stops looking for the payoff. They don’t think it’s coming back, so when it does, it’s a legitimate surprise again.

Read the whole thread for the full analysis of why that payoff is so good.

Stop, look, listen: London Writers’ Salon, E55 – Dr Gloria Mark on types of attention

I love a good deep dive on the way that our creative brains work, and this episode from the London Writers’ Salon with Dr Gloria Mark, author of Attention Span, provides some fabulous insights into how attention works.

One important point that she makes that focus takes energy, and that after a long period of intense focus, “we have to switch our attentional states[.] We have to do something that doesn’t involve a lot of mental effort.”

That’s something that it’s very, very easy to forget, especially when we feel so much pressure to get stuff finished quickly. Host Matthew Trinetti mentions research done by Mason Currey for his book, Daily Rituals, which found that a lot of creative people – artists, inventors, scientists – only did two to four hours of focused work per day. Mark agrees that for most people, if you get two hours of focused time in the morning and two in the afternoon, you’re doing well.

The whole interview is fascinating, and well worth a listen.

Read this, two: Preorders are a problem

Book publicist Kathleen Schmidt talks about the problems with pre-orders, and how the publishing industry’s reliance on them to “1) determine first printings, 2) plan budgets, and 3) get a better picture of the amount of marketing and publicity a book will need to make sales pop” is horribly flawed, not least because social media’s a shitshow these days.

Publishing currently faces a problem that I’ve yet to see addressed: If the algorithms on Twitter and other platforms are unreliable and an author needs to get preorders for their book, is it fair to say there is a lack of demand for a title if preorders are light?

Read this, three: Brace yourself

A survey by The Bookseller has found that “More than half of authors (54%) responding to a survey by The Bookseller on their experiences of publishing their debut book have said the process negatively affected their mental health.”

Among the majority who said they had a negative experience of debut publication, anxiety, stress, depression and “lowered” self-esteem were cited, with lack of support, guidance or clear and professional communication from their publisher among the factors that contributed.

Publishers can clearly do a better job of supporting debut authors, many of whom don’t yet understand how the industry works or what to expect. But I think it’s also important that authors take the time to learn from others’ experiences so that they can properly moderate their own expectations.

I hate to say it, but as authors we’re increasingly on our own, and it’s up to us to look after ourselves.

Suw’s news: Final chapter of The Gates of Balawat up now

I’m glad that I took a punt on publishing my urban fantasy (with a tiny hint of the romantic) novella here on Substack. It’s had nearly four times more readers there than it has had downloads as an ebook. If you haven’t read any of The Gates of Balawat so far, Chapter 1 is probably the best place to start.

I’ll continue to release my fiction on Substack, so keep an eye out for my next short story, The Lacemaker.

Obligatory cat picture

My repositioned desk has been a huge hit with Grabbity and Copurrnicus, and I’ve had one or the other, or sometimes both (until someone gets jealous), on it for most of the day. Which is lovely, but does make typing a challenge.

That’s it for this week!

All the best,


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When you don’t have enough of something, it becomes all you can think about.

Lots of us have experienced more scarcity than usual over the last eighteen months. But scarcity isn’t just unpleasant, it also causes us to make bad decisions. Our brain becomes hyperfocused on the thing we don’t have enough of and we develop tunnel vision that prevents us from thinking expansively and coming up with creative solutions to our problems.

When you’re short of time, you waste time on apps and systems that claim to save time, or you sacrifice important things like sleep, rest or exercise. When you’re short of food, all you can think about is your favourite meal or recipes you’ll never cook. When you’re short of space you dream of bigger houses with more storage.

This episode of NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast, The Scarcity Trap: Why We Keep Digging When We’re Stuck In A Hole, explains the scarcity trap very clearly and is well worth a listen.

So, how does this apply to Substack and writing?

I’d guess that almost everyone on Substack is here because we want to be read. And if the discussion on Substack’s Office Hours posts is anything to go by, most of us have fewer subscribers than we’d like and are eager to attract more. So we focus tightly on subscriber numbers, finding new ways to attract more subscribers, trying to work out how to convert them to paid subscribers. It can become all-consuming.

I know this, because for the last few weeks, I have been watching my subscriber counts like a hawk. I have a spreadsheet. It does some sums and gives me goals for how many subscribers I need to be able to earn a living here. When my numbers plateaued two weeks ago my mood took a dive, and then Notes happened and I was happy again. But that is not healthy, not least because those thoughts begin to crowd out my creativity.

As a writer, I’m very familiar with the broader problem of scarcity of readers. It is very, very hard to persuade people to become readers, even if you offer your work for free. People have a natural scepticism that seems to grow in proportion to the amount of effort you put in to persuading them to read your stuff.

This particular scarcity trap can lead authors to behave in some really strange and often quite toxic ways. I have seen writers whose social media presence and newsletters became phenomenally self-centred, to an extent that goes well beyond basic self-promotion. They talked about nothing else but themselves, their books, their cover reveals, their events. There’s no give, it’s all ask.

I can understand how they got there. We’re constantly told that it’s our responsibility to gather together an audience for our creative wares and that without that audience there is no possibility of success. That’s not true for everyone, of course, but those who find publishing success without having to put the audience-building work in are very lucky. And because it’s impossible to tell who’s going to get lucky, the rest of us just have to fall back on hard work and persistence.

But when the audience isn’t coming, when the numbers aren’t going up, into that scarcity trap we go. Communications can too easily move from self-promotion to desperation to toxicity, and when they turn sour, they actively drive our audience away.

Scarcity traps push us into short-term thinking and bad decisions. The worst career decision I ever made, as I’ve mentioned here before, was quitting my job when I was in my mid-20s “to write more”. It didn’t work out like that –  I just got stressed, ran up a huge debt and ended up writing almost nothing.

That period of my life is actually a story of cascading scarcity traps: I wanted to write, but I didn’t have time. So I quit my job to become a music journalist. I ended up earning next to nothing, which meant that I was too stressed to write. Instead of getting a job, (deep down, I didn’t really believe any employer would want to hire an opinionated, difficult person like me anyway), I became a contract web designer and wrote a little bit during my commute into London. But again, I didn’t really have enough time to write. When my finances had improved, I decided to quit and find a gig nearer to home which would give me more time. Except the Dot Com Crash happened, I was out of work for nine months, my finances nose-dived and again I was too stressed to write.

And on and on and on.

I mean, if you took away from this story that I’m a complete fucking idiot who doesn’t learn her lessons, you’d not be wrong. But it’s also a story of someone caught in a cycle of scarcity traps. As soon as I got out of one, I’d end up in another because I never had the stability or mental bandwidth I needed to avoid them.

If my husband is reading this, at this point he’ll be looking at the screen sternly saying, “Susan Margaret, just listen to yourself!”

And I am, I am. I’m going through a difficult and very uncertain career transition at the moment which is resulting in less money coming in than I’d like. And I will admit that I’ve found myself falling into the money scarcity trap.

So, what to do about these dastardly scarcity traps?

  1. Look for them. Like any trap they are well disguised and the closer you are the harder they are to spot. So take some time to survey your life, ask what you’re short of, and see if you’re feeling that scarcity to the point where it’s leading you astray.
  2. Get a mentor. A good mentor will help you gain perspective and make better decisions.
  3. Put limits on activities that are driven by hyperfocus, eg, check subscriber data weekly, not every half hour.
  4. Don’t panic. A scarcity mindset frequently leads to panic, which fires up your limbic system and gives you those physical sensations of anxiety. The limbic system takes a dog’s age to calm down, so try to avoid setting it off in the first place.
  5. Make small, sustainable changes. When you know what you’re short of, make small, positive changes that will help you get what you need. Don’t try to fix it all at once.

So much of the modern world seems engineered to tip us into scarcity traps. I bet that, if you looked at your life with an honest eye, you’d find that you’re in at least one. But just know that you’re not alone and that it is possible to not just survive scarcity traps, but to climb out and stay out, especially if we do it together.

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Plus major Tag rewrite, introducing paid essays, and how to build a writing habit.

Hi there,

Happy Tuesday! There is, I must warn you, an awful lot of me in this week’s newsletter, but exciting changes are afoot at Substack, so read on to find out more!

Substack news: Introducing Notes

Last week, Substack introduced Notes, a Twitter-like way to chat and meet other writers and readers on Substack itself. I have seen it described as a “Twitter killer” and whilst I wouldn’t go that far, it certainly does remind me of the very early days of Twitter when it was fun and chill and interesting. So far, I’ve found Notes to be a lovely way to discover newsletters and just generally chat with other Substack users.

You don’t have to write a newsletter to use it, but you do need to be logged in. If you use the app you might need to update it, or just visit the website and you’ll find the icon in between Inbox and Chat. There are tabs at the top of the page that let you read everyone’s notes, or just those people whose newsletters you subscribe to.

Try it out and say hi by typing in @suw (and letting the autocomplete do the rest).

Newsletter news: Introducing paid essays

I have so many ideas for essays itching away in my skull that I feel I should take this period of underemployment and do something constructive with them. So, today I am launching a paid tier which will feature two essays per month digging into the craft of writing, the publishing industry, screenwriting and more. The first essay is about the importance of subtext!

Please subscribe – it’s only £5 a month or £50 a year (that’s £10 off!) and every new paid subscriber will help me move towards a sustainable writing career.

If you are a student, unemployed, or for any other reason can’t afford a subscription, drop me a line and I’ll give you a comp – no need to explain your situation, just let me know what email you subscribed with.

Don’t forget, you can also control which emails you get via your Substack subscription management page.

Suw’s News: Major Tag rewrite

I am on the verge of scrapping the current pilot episode of Tag and starting again from scratch. I spent over two hours on a call with my script editor, the fabulous Dan McGrath, going through everything that’s wrong with it and how it can be fixed. And, well, it’s a lot. A lot lot.

Some of it I already knew was destined for the chop, like my wonderful cold open of which I am so very fond. But the very best TV sets up the characters, their wants/needs, the barriers they face, and the stakes within the first five or six minutes. Happy Valley S1E1 establishes Sergeant Carwood’s character literally within the first 30 seconds with just a couple of lines of dialogue, and then sets up the series, Carwood’s backstory and one of the main conflicts within the first 2 minutes 30 seconds, before the credits. It’s fast, effective and compelling.

I, on the other hand, was spending three minutes in an atmospheric but ultimately pointless World War I scene. I think I’ve known for months that it would have to go, but have been resisting because, well, it’s a great cold open. For a completely different TV series.

Chatting with Dan has given me not only the nerve to ditch it, but also a much clearer understanding of what each key character’s goals are, how they play off against one another, and how it all ties in to the series theme. If you are looking for a really smart and perceptive script editor to work with, Dan is definitely your man.

But this isn’t going to be a light edit. I need to strip everything back to its structural bones and start again. Wish me luck!

Event: Will Storr’s Science of Storytelling seminar

I attended Will Storr’s Science of Storytelling seminar in March and got so much out of it, despite having read the book twice already, that I absolutely must recommend it to you. His next seminar is scheduled for 18:00 BST on 14 June and is only £50 for three hours of insights into how and why we tell stories.

The most important things I took away from the seminar were:

  1. The need for cause and effect in a plot. It has be “This caused that”, not “And then happened”.
  2. The usefulness of understanding a character’s Theory of Control (ie how they believe the world works), how that is at odds with the world they inhabit, and how they have to change.

If you’re interested in becoming a better storyteller, whatever your medium, this webinar is an essential.

Stop, look, listen: Confessions of a Debut Novelist, S2E12 – Ch?k?d?l? Emel?mad?, Dazzling

Dazzling book coverI loved listening Chloe Timms talk to Ch?k?d?l? Emel?mad? about her debut novel Dazzling, what it was like to win the Curtis Brown First Novel Prize in 2019, and the battle she had to do with her characters to finish her novel.

“I’m used to telling them what to do,” Emel?mad? says, “and these girls were just not letting me. And it was a lot of grappling. In total, I have about half a million words of different drafts because I counted it up and I put them all inside a folder, because I just had to look at it and think, ‘Wow, thank you so much for wasting my time all these years.’ But I thought, ‘No, you wasted your own time, Ch?k?d?l?, because they were telling you what they wanted, and you wouldn’t listen.’”

I was particularly struck by the point she makes about how we treat Greek and Norse mythology with such reverence, but not Nigerian mythology. Most Westerners know very little of other storytelling traditions, and we’re the poorer for it.

I also think that Emel?mad? makes a really important point that you have to put your all into your novel, not hold things back for a sequel. Using all your best ideas now ensures that you end up with a novel that’s “richer” and “more rounded”, and it doesn’t take away from future works. (They are, after all, only ideas and you’ll have more.)

WAIW? You don’t need willpower to write

Last week’s post on Why Aren’t I Writing? was about how to use habits to help you create a robust writing schedule and really get cracking on your work in progress. It is by far the most popular post I’ve written so far. Take a look!

Obligatory cat picture

Grabbity (left) and Copurrnicus aren’t always this cosy, but every now and again they forget their differences and cuddle up together.

Two cats cuddle on a bed

That’s it for this week. Please do check out the Essays section of Word Count and upgrade to paid if you like!

All the best,


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You don’t need willpower to write

by Suw on April 12, 2023

Woman sitting with a laptop on the top of a sea cliff.

I, too, would like to develop a habit of writing by the sea, but that’s not a very ergonomic set-up she’s got there.

You need to build good habits.

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago (OK, 1998), I found myself learning Welsh. For the record, despite the spelling of my name (long-standing typo), I am English rather than Welsh. But I had started freelancing as a music journalist and one idea that I’d successfully pitched to the Melody Maker was that I’d spend a week on tour with the Super Furry Animals. It was going to be my first article focused on a band rather than the gear they used, and I was extremely excited.

Given that all the Super Furries speak Welsh, I thought that it would be only polite for me to learn a few words, to show a bit of respect for their language and culture. I then realised that I’d need to learn more than just “Hello” and “How are you?” because they’d reply in Welsh and I’d look daft if I couldn’t understand. And thus started my 25-year language learning journey.

The first 23 years of that journey were pretty haphazard, with some periods of intense learning and others of complete abandonment. By the time December 2020 arrived, I was feeling as if I’d made no progress at all for at least a decade.

Then I read Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Now I’m chatting with Welsh friends in the pub, understanding about 80 per cent of what I watch on S4C, and writing in Welsh on WhatsApp. Both my understanding of spoken Welsh and my ability to express myself have noticeably improved. The difference? I began practicing my Welsh every day, a habit that I’ve stuck to since 28 December 2020. In that time, I’ve missed only one day (and I could kick myself about that).

My current writing habit also goes back to December 2020 and has been extremely robust despite the pandemic and an international house move. I aim to write at least five days a week and I’ve been pretty good at sticking to that – any gaps have generally been caused by holidays, major life changes, or outside forces beyond my control.

But when I mentioned the importance of habits in a writers’ Facebook group the other week, I got a very cross response from someone who said they were fed up with hearing “self-discipline” as the cure-all for writing more.

In fact, habits are the very opposite of self-discipline. Instead, they are the things that we do every day almost without thinking. Some of those things are good: Having breakfast. Brushing your teeth. Showering. Eating lunch. Some are bad: Slouching at your desk. Eating too much chocolate. Not eating enough fruit and veg. Not exercising enough.

(I say ‘your’. I obviously mean ‘my’.)

And you don’t need self-discipline to get started either. What you need is to understand how habits work and to use that knowledge to create new habits.

Work smarter, not harder.

A good way to start is by asking yourself what kind of person you want to be. What will your new identity be? You want to be a writer? You want to be the kind of person who exercises? Who eats less chocolate? Who keeps their accounts up to date? Then you have to be the kind of person who writes, who exercises, who eats less chocolate, who does their accounts regularly.

Next is the question, “What would someone who is a writer do?” Break down your new identity into tasks. A writer writes, yes, but exactly what does that mean?

For me, it means:

  • Setting time aside five days a week to work on a writing project.
  • Developing my writing skills.
  • Doing the pre-writing work of world-building, character development, etc.
  • Writing.
  • Reading.
  • Editing.
  • Revising.

My biggest challenge has always been setting aside the time, and that just happens to be the one thing upon which everything else depends. I knew that if I could crack that nut – ie create a habit of making time to write – the rest of it would be relatively easy.

To do that, I followed Clear’s four rules:

  1. Make it obvious
  2. Make it attractive
  3. Make it easy
  4. Make it satisfying

1. Make it obvious

Clear suggests that you outline exactly what you’re going to do, when and where:


I will [sit down and write] at [7pm] in [the lounge].

In 2020, my husband was just starting an online master’s, which made the shape of my habit very obvious. He would spend his evenings studying so I spent my evenings writing. I will confess that his habit made creating my habit an order of magnitude easier.

2. Make it attractive

There are many ways to do this. ‘Temptation building’ links the new habit to something that you already enjoy, so for example, I enjoy sitting on my sofa, so writing on my laptop whilst sitting on my sofa is a tempting thought. You can also use rewards, such as watching an episode of your favourite TV show after spending some time writing.

3. Make it easy

The easier you can make it to do the thing, the more likely you are to do the thing. So what’s stopping you from writing? I don’t mean the existential angst stuff, I mean the practical stuff.

Do you hate writing in Word? Find an alternative. Does your chair give you backache? Get a new chair or a lumbar support cushion. Is your work space too dark of an evening? Get a light. Do your kids demand your attention when you’re trying to write?

OK, so I saw an awesome suggestion about that from someone online a while back – she has a writing tiara, and whilst Mummy is wearing her writing tiara, she is not to be disturbed. It’s a great suggestion because, firstly, not everyone has an office they can shut themselves away in and, secondly, tiara. Apparently it works a treat.

Another thing that makes it easier is priming your environment – prepare ahead of time so that when it comes to doing the thing, you can just get going. So if you’re planning to write on your laptop after dinner, get your software open, close social media apps, and get any notes or research ready before dinner.

The easier you made it, the more likely you are to do the thing.

4. Make it satisfying

Writing is a bit of a nightmare when it comes to making it immediately satisfying, because it can take years to finish a project. And delayed gratification isn’t a great foundation for a new habit.

This is where habit tracking comes in. I have an app called Streaks which I use to track all my habits. And it is really satisfying to see how well I’ve done at practicing my Welsh, writing, flossing, etc. over the last couple of years.

If tracking doesn’t work for you, try self-bribery instead. I used to have to rewrite press releases into news items for work, and honestly, it’s the single most boring writing job there is. I used to promise myself chocolate when the chore was finished and, being very chocolate-motivated, that worked well.

I’m now finding that the writing itself is satisfying, which is, I suppose, the ultimate way to satisfy Rule 4.

The Two Minute Rule

Possibly the most important idea that I took away from Clear is the Two Minute Rule. He points out that you can find two minutes at any point in your day, so if you are trying to start a new habit and finding it hard, promise yourself you’ll show up for just two minutes.

Write one sentence. Read one page. Jot down one idea.

That’s it. That’s the beginning of your habit. Just show up every day for two minutes.

A friend of mine has been working on a novel, writing 50 words a day. At that rate, it will take him five years to get a first draft, but it took me six years to write the first draft of my novel because I wasn’t writing regularly for the first five and a half years of that project. So whilst it seems ridiculous, he has created a habit and he will, eventually, have finished his novel.

There’s obviously a lot more to habits than I can distil in one post, so I really very strongly recommend that you take a look at Atomic Habits, or any of the other habit books out there. If there’s one thing that has the power to genuinely transform your writing life, it’s creating a strong writing habit for yourself.

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Plus dealing with time paralysis, Amazon kills Book Depository, cat with a feather hat.

Hi there,

Extremely short newsletter this week because of the delightfully long (and yet not long enough) weekend.

Suw’s news: I changed my mind

After taking part in a Scribe Lounge chat last week, I learnt that LA Productions give feedback on the scripts submitted to them. Given that all feedback is useful feedback, I worked my butt off to get the pilot edited and ready for submission. I think the changes make it stronger, so they were good to do anyway regardless of the submission. Hopefully at some point in May I’ll get some feedback that will help me refine it further.

Event: British Museum Literary Season

The British Museum is beginning a series of events (members only) exploring “the fascinating world of historical fiction”. The first event on 17 April features best-selling authors Jennifer Saint and Elodie Harper who will be talking about ancient Greece and Rome. May features Natalie Haynes on Medusa; June is Philippa Gregory on the Stuarts; July is Mary Beard on ancient myths; August is Dan Jones and Helen Castor on medieval warfare; the final event in August is Ken Follett on the Industrial Revolution. Sounds like an awesome line-up.

Dates for your diary: BBC’s Pilot scheme and Open Call

The BBC will be opening its Pilot scheme to submissions between 5 and 26 September 2023. This is sadly not for folks with a love of flying, but for writers who have already got “at least one professional credit of at least 30 minutes”.

More pertinent to most of us, the BBC’s Open Call will reopen towards the end of this year. That gives me a few months to come up with a new script because they don’t take resubmissions.

WAIW? Dealing with time paralysis

Last week’s Why Aren’t I Writing? explored why I ended up feeling paralysed both because I had too much time and not enough time to write. It might sound like a contradiction in terms, but both can be true at the same time for different projects.

News: Amazon kills off The Book Depository

I’m not a fan of Amazon at the best of times, but it’s particularly disappointing that they’ve shuttered The Book Depository, although the bigger disappointment was that they got to buy it in the first place.

Obligatory cat picture

Copurrnicus with a feather toy on his headI had a completely different picture in mind for this week’s newsletter, but when I opened Photos it showed me these two snaps from February last year, when we were still living in Shaker Heights, OH, and had no idea of the trials and tribulations that were to come with our move back to the UK.

Copurrnicus loves these feather toys and sometimes plays fetch with them. However, fetch requires me to be good at throwing them, which I am not. This isn’t the only time he’s ended up wearing it as a fascinator.

That’s it for this week.

Best regards,


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ClocksIn the last week, I’ve had both not enough and too much time to write. The human brain can be kinda stupid.

This morning, as I was wondering what to write in this week’s newsletter, an email popped into my inbox that turned out to be fruitfully apropos. In Three tales of creative slowness, author Mason Currey writes about how dismal it feels when your work is going just so much more slowly than you want it to, with examples from painter Gwen Jones, Lydia Davis’s novel The End of the Story and Sarah Manguso’s book 300 Arguments.

Walking to the corner shop and thinking about how painful that experience is, I realised that I have lately been suffering from two types of creative paralysis that can feed into the sometimes glacial pace of creativity: too much time and not enough time.

You might be wondering how it’s possible to have both too much and not enough time, to which I can only reply that the human brain is a marvellously (annoyingly) complicated thing and, like Douglas Adams’ Electric Monk, we can hold two or more entirely contradictory beliefs in our mind at once without short-circuiting. I can feel simultaneously like I have too much time for one project whilst experiencing a distinct a lack of time for another.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that my essay on the potential for large language models (LLMs) to disrupt several aspects of the publishing industry had left me feeling quite down. But it also left me with another problem: I want to write a follow-up, but the news was just coming too fast for me to keep up. I felt like I just did not have enough time to read everything that was being published, let alone synthesise it into something interesting and novel. I felt completely overwhelmed. But that post netted me a dozen or so new subscribers, so I also felt obliged to write something new. Indeed, half of those new subscribers left within the fortnight, clearly disappointed that I’m not an AI specialist.

There are a bunch of things going on here, indeed there’s probably too much to unpick in one post, but even without thinking I can spot:

  • Perfectionism
  • Fear of public humiliation, I’m scared of getting my facts wrong
  • Completionism, I want to have read everything about the subject so that I can feel informed (this is a form of a lack of self-confidence)
  • Co-dependency and people pleasing, I feel I ought to write what I think others expect me to write rather than what I want to write
  • Continuation bias, I feel that I have write more on LLMs because I started writing about LLMs
  • Scarcity mindset, I focus more on how little time I had rather than using the time I actually have available to me

All of these things deserve a deep dive on their own, but you can start to see how paralysing this can be. Really, the feeling that I have no time to write is just the surface expression of a deeper fault system, to use a geological analogy, that needs mapping and examining. And because there’s a complex interplay between these different fears, there are a host of ways to tackle this problem:

  • Split the problem down into smaller, more manageable chunks and just tackle one at a time
  • Accept that I will never read everything, but that that won’t prevent me from writing something insightful
  • Accept that you can’t please all of the people all of the time and that some people are always going to think I’m an idiot
  • Isolate and focus on what I want to write, rather than second-guessing others
  • Reject continuation bias and write what I want to write
  • Break the process of writing down into smaller, more manageable chunks so that I can use the shorter periods of time that are available to me; don’t wait for a whole day to come free

So far, so good. That all makes sense.

But what about this “too much time” malarkey? How is it possible to have too much time to write?

This is where Currey’s post really hit home. We all expect that we can do a lot more in a week or a day or even an hour than we often can. When we only have a half hour to write, then that limitation can be freeing, because it puts boundaries around our expectations. We just crack on and see where we get.

But Friday, I had a whole day to work on my script. There were no calls in the diary, nothing else I needed to do. I had a nice clear run at it. On Thursday night, I was excited about the prospect. But by Friday morning I was feeling quite paralysed. It was just so much time. How was I ever going to keep the momentum up for all those hours?

Of course, I didn’t. Instead, I spent some time faffing about with ChatGPT to see if it could edit text (it can, up to a point), and then whether it can edit text in Welsh (it can, up to a point). I experimented with asking it to turn a portion of a script into prose suitable for a novel (it did a half decent job, though it did skip important bits and it did hallucinate a little), then I asked it to turn part of a short story into a script (it made a total pig’s breakfast of it).

I didn’t need to have done any of that.

Again, I can spot a few fish swimming underneath the ice:

  • Perfectionism, again. I’d got this idea that Friday was going to be a perfect writing day, but feared that neither the day nor the writing would live up to that expectation.
  • Procrastination. I could, and will, write a whole load about this at some point, but procrastination is tightly linked to perfectionism.
  • Tiredness. It was Friday. I actually wasn’t feeling great.

The cure for all of these things is, though, the same: Stop thinking and start doing. If necessary, use the Pomodoro technique – put a 25 minute timer on and just go heads down until the bell rings. Cut the big tranche of time into less scary portions, lean into your craft, and remember that you don’t need to be “in the mood” to write.

I should have done that on Friday, but with all the will in the world, sometimes we don’t do what we know we need to do because the human brain is spicy and a bit stupid. But I feel that, having written this, I will be a bit more prepared next time. Because there will be a next time.

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Plus creating internal conflict, the risks of BookTok, British Fantasy Awards news, and much more.

Hi there,

The sky is a beautiful expanse of blue as I write this and I expect today to be a good day for light aircraft watching out my office window. I particularly love seeing the bright yellow Slingsby Fireflies from the local formation flying club pass in groups of two or three. My office doesn’t have a great view, but I bet the Firefly pilots do.

Suw’s news: New sections on Substack

I was taught a bit of a Substack lesson recently that has led me to do a little rearranging of the furniture to make things more comfortable for you. I had a lot of people subscribe after my essay on the risk of LLMs to the publishing industry, but after realising that my general newsletter isn’t LLM-focused, lots of them left. That’s absolutely fine because I’d rather someone unsubscribed than marked my emails as spam, but it made me realise that you would probably like more control over which emails you receive.

I’ve thus created two new sections for Fiction and Essays which you can subscribe to (or unsubscribe from) separately to the main newsletter. I’ll also do the same for the Fieldwork project once that kicks off, which will hopefully be next week.

If you want to fine tune your subscription, just visit your settings page and turn off the emails you don’t want to receive.

Opportunity: The Oxford/Pushkin Children’s Fantasy Prize

The Oxford Centre for Fantasy and Pushkin Children’s Books are collaborating on a new book prize to mark the 50th anniversary year since the death of JRR Tolkien. The winner will receive £2,000 and mentorship with an editor at Pushkin Children’s Books, with four runners up also receiving prizes.

The prize is open to unpublished novels for middle grade (9+) and young adult readers, written by early career authors who are either unpublished or who have published no more than two books, and who have “not received a contract with an advance from a publisher for fiction”.

Entries cost £5 and the deadline is 23:59 on 31 May 2023, so you have plenty of time to polish your manuscript.

Notably, “The work submitted must be the author’s original work (no AI generated prose or assistance and no plagiarism).” I think such clauses are going to become very common now that AI is getting good, but I do wonder how they are going to enforce this.

Opportunity: The Jed Mercurio Mentorship Programme

Jed Mercurio, writer of Line of Duty, Bodyguard and more, has launched a mentoring program for early career screenwriters which will provide mentoring to 6-10 mentees in the first year. Mercurio will be joined as a mentor by Emma Frost, Jack Thorne, Marnie Dickens, Steven Moffat and Vinay Patel.

The scheme is open to anyone who lives in the UK or Ireland, but outside of London, and they are particularly interested in applications from writers from a low-income background. There’s no entry fee, and the deadline for submissions is 21st April 2023 at 5pm GMT.

Stop, look, listen: Afronauts – Pre-Writing: Vibes, Worldbuilding, and Character Arcs

I do love getting a little peek behind other people’s writing curtains, and this episode of Afronauts does not disappoint! Chelsea Gayden, Jill Tew and Beatrice Iker talk about how they approach “pre-writing”, which is what they call all the background and prep work that some authors do before diving in to the actual writing bit, and it’s a fascinating conversation.

I was particularly interested in their idea of “vibes”, or the overall tone and feel of the story, because I’ve always thought that’s an emergent property of the combination of world, character and plot. But that said, I did start a private Pinterest board as part of my prep for my novel (though I rarely looked at it), and I do tend to have some sense of comps which then does inform my vibes. Maybe that’s something for me to think more about!

Still, the entire episode is great and full of ideas for how you can develop your story before you commit words to paper. Give it a listen (Spotify link)!

What I’m watching: Creating internal conflict

This brief video from Mary Robinette Kowel explores how to develop internal conflict for your characters by exploring their “ability, role, relationship and status”, and putting “two aspects of a character in conflict with each other”.

Read this: George Walkley on Geopolitics, Publishing, TikTok

George Walkley examines the publishing phenomenon that is BookTok and asks what would happen to publishers if TikTok just… went away? It’s not an absurd question, given the currently antsy geopolitical climate in which no one trusts China and China trusts no one.

But it’s not just TikTok. All social media platforms have become a lot less effective for promoting books (or, indeed, anything else). They all punish posts that include links that lead people off the site, which has seriously damaged their ability to drive traffic. The lesson here is obvious, but one that many people have still not grasped: Do not build your house on someone else’s land.

Nominate here: British Fantasy Award noms open

Got a favourite fantasy novel that was published in 2022? Nominate it for a British Fantasy award via their handy online form.

Twitter threads of the week

Twitter was awash with awesome threads this week, so here are three I loved:

WAIW? Knowing when to stop

Over on Why Aren’t I Writing?, I wrote about knowing when to stop a writing session. We talk a lot about getting started with our writing, but think less about finding the optimal moment to stop. I suspect we could all do with learning how to find that sweet spot between getting lots done but leaving a bit to do the next day so that you’re excited about starting writing again.

Copurrnicus with a chipped fangObligatory cat picture

When I originally stuck a bird feeder to our lounge window, I did it as a way to keep our indoors cats entertained. It never occurred to me that Copurrnicus would get so overexcited that he’d launch himself at the window and chip one of his fangs. However, this does appear to be what happened.


His hunting technique has not improved any now that he has a garden to play in. He just launches himself at the birds as if enthusiasm can make up for being far too far away. At some point he might work it out, but I’m not holding my breath.

That’s it for this week.

All the best,



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